More than 80 years ago, when the Japanese attacked U.S. battleships at Pearl Harbor, men throughout the nation rushed to enlist in the military to fight the nation’s enemies. But to win that fight, they needed ships, airplanes, guns and ammunition.
That’s where the Rosie the Riveters stepped in to perform work previously done by their male counterparts, working in munitions plants, shipbuilding yards, airplane manufacturing factories and other defense industries.
For Doris (Hastings) Bier, it was just a job — a good one for a teenage girl who drove a truck to help harvest farm fields in Adna and learned from her dad how to fix a flat tire. She was a high school sophomore in 1944 when she passed a battery of tests to earn a coveted spot assembling Diamond T Jeep axles at the Mount Rainier Ordnance Depot at the age of 16.
For Josie Dunn, a 24-year-old African American, the job aided in desegregating the Boeing Co. and changed the lives of nearly three dozen of her family members who picked cotton in Oklahoma and lived in homes without running water. After training in Wichita, Kansas, she boarded a bus for Washington.
“She thought they were sending her to Washington, D.C.,” said Cynthia Payne, of Seattle, the project manager with Washington Women in Trades who interviewed Dunn for a Rosie the Riveter calendar. “Imagine her surprise when she ended up here. She was first sent to the shipyard in Bremerton, but her aversion to water and fear of heights wasn’t a good fit, so she ended up at Boeing. She was a riveter.”
Payne and Robin Murphy, both with Washington Women in Trades, spoke with affection about Dunn and the other 156 Rosie the Riveters they had interviewed for the 13 calendars late last month during the Steel Toe Teens Girls’ Summer Camp at Shoreline Community College in Seattle.
“I spoke at her funeral,” Payne said, referring to Dunn’s death on Nov. 26, 2016, at the age of 98.
During the war, Dunn helped build B-17 bombers, and she continued working for Boeing for 38 years.
Murphy referred to Dunn’s story while teaching 20 girls between the ages of 11 and 14 about the wartime role of Rosie the Riveters who proved women could perform jobs traditionally held by men.
“We have one friend, Josie, she lived back in Oklahoma, and she picked cotton, and they didn’t make any money,” Murphy said. “She got trained as a welder, came out to Boeing here, found out it was great money. She saved her money, sent it back home, and brought all her family members back. She brought 34 people to Seattle because she got a good job.”
The stories of Rosie the Riveters inspired the women and girls attending the first-ever Steel Toe Teens camp where girls learned from women instructors about work in five trades — pipe trades, electricity, carpentry, sheet metal, and cement masonry.
“Each kid created a take-home item in each trade,” Payne said. “Carpenters: a jewelry box. Cement masonry: an epoxy trivet. Sheet metal: a toolbox. Electricity: a light box. And pipe trades: a sprinkler!”
It reminded me of the American Association of University Women’s Expanding Your Horizons camp except with a focus on trades.
“There are so many kids who don’t necessarily fit into the Oh-I’m-gonna-go-to-college-and-get-a-degree category,” Payne said. “We want to make sure they know about options.”
She described the camp as a huge success.
“We had kids who wanted to learn, parents who wanted to pay, instructors who put hours and hours into prep, volunteers who stepped up wherever and whenever they were needed, a spectacular venue, and extensive community support through sponsorships and donations.”
While many references to Rosie the Riveters are past tense, because most have died, the girls attending the camp met living history as 95-year-old Doris Bier of Centralia shared her first-hand account of efficiently putting together axles with long, red fingernails.
She wore steel-toed shoes, jeans, a shirt and one of her dad’s red bandanas wrapped around her wild hair.
“There was a guy down the aisle that went to school with my dad,” Doris said. “And he called my dad and he said, ‘Swede, you should make Doris go home and play with her dolls. She has no business being here.’ Bill knew us very well. And he was furious because I was making the same wage as a man — $1.69 an hour.”
Bill often grumbled about the presence of a woman — the only one working with 19 men assembling axles — and insisted she should be fired for inferior work, even though she was doing four axles by noon and four or six in the afternoon. A supervisor periodically checked her work for quality.
“I was doing more axles a day than he did, simply because if you go to work, you better work and do it well,” she said. “And I had to prove to all the men that I was capable of doing it.”
Bill kept calling her father. “My dad said, ‘Bill, I can’t see you on the phone, but I know you’re mad. But if you’re not careful, she’s going to have your job.’”
When a foreman tapped her on the shoulder and told her to turn off her machine, Bill thought she would be fired. Instead, she was driven to a field with a podium, tables and chairs, including one with her name on it. She listened to a general speak about morale and the experiment to send women to school and see if they could do the work of men.
“He said, ‘Well, we have the youngest, prettiest, most industrious mechanic at Fort Lewis ever.’ He says, ‘Doris, stand up.’”
She received an “e” pin awarded for “excellence,” which they fastened to her collar.
The general said he’d never given the pin to a woman — although he noted that Doris wasn’t quite a woman yet at 16.
“I looked at him and I said, ‘You want to bet,’” she recalled. “And the lieutenant standing by said, ‘Don’t talk to a general that way.’ And I said, ‘He started it.’”
As she prepared to leave, the men gave her a standing ovation and a long-stemmed rose. She rode back in a Jeep to the depot, where her coworkers were finishing a coffee break. She saw Bill, and his jaw dropped.
“I thought you got fired,” he told her.
“Nope,” she responded. “I stuck the rose in my teeth, and I sashayed in right behind Bill.”
The next morning, she arrived at work to find a large toolbox on wheels rolled out to her station containing everything but a torque wrench.
When she quit the job to return to Adna High School, she successfully launched a campaign to let girls take wood shop classes. Two years earlier, she had built the school’s new scoreboard herself. The girls built cedar chests in the new shop (and actually pushed their English teacher, Mr. Roundtree, into one and sat on it as a lark).
Doris graduated in 1947 and, when Clayton Bier returned from the war, they were married on June 13, 1947, but not without controversy because of post-war prejudice. Their flower girls were Adna’s Irene Sato and her little sister, Janie, who had been born at the Tule Lake internment camp six weeks before the death of her mother, Hanako. The Methodist church Clayton had attended all his life refused to marry them there because of their Japanese American flower girls. Doris’s church in Adna, which the Sato family had attended before being interned at Tule Lake, also refused to marry them because of prejudice.
“The Presbyterian church called me,” Doris said. “Somebody talked to them that knew us.”
So that’s where they were married.
After her presentation at the girls’ summer camp, Doris signed pamphlets, T-shirts, red-and-white polka dot bandanas, and anything else the girls and instructors could find to capture a piece of living history.
“When you drive down the freeway, before you get to Fort Lewis, between Fort Lewis and McChord field, there’s a little cobblestone archway,” Doris told the girls, referring to the marker on the east side of Interstate 5. “I drove through that every day to go to Mount Rainier Ordnance Depot.”
Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at email@example.com.